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Is this the first week of the future?

Welcome to the first week of the rest of your life. That’s certainly how it feels as the UK throws off its Covid-shaped shackles and marches out into the bright light of a new dawn, complete with packed commuter trains and busy-again city centres.

If it is fair to be a touch cynical as to why, in the UK at least, the balance between science and politics has shifted so dramatically towards the latter (notably, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid, Dr David Navarro, has questioned the idea we should just treat Covid like flu), it is not a question for here. We'll leave the politics to be covered by others, elsewhere.

For now, let’s celebrate. We exist so our community of like-minded founders can help one another. For the most part, founders will just be pleased to get back to a more normal economic set up. But what does a normal economic set up look like post-pandemic?

Several workplace trends have arisen in different places in recent years and built gradually over time. Many have now collided to kick-start a workplace revolution that is coalescing around ideas such as employee-determined salaries, all-you-can-use holiday allowances and a four-day week. Covid has tipped the entire world of work on its head, with founders and business owners conceding more authority and decision making to autonomous groups of employees. Five key trends that look likely to shape the future of the workplace include:

  1. Covid has made us all question the meaning of work To be more specific, Covid has allowed those for whom work has more meaning than simply a pay cheque to question its place in our lives. Why do we give it so much time? Why do we place so much importance on it? In time, this “great rebalancing” may be one of the longer-lasting effects of the pandemic. Necessity drove so much invention and facilitated a working from home revolution that shaved hours off commute-free days and put more parents at home with their kids for more moments that matter. Indeed there may have been too much family time (especially during lockdowns) for some. The effect of this rebalancing has been to lend more credence to concepts such as flexible working. It has signalled a return to a phrase from the early 2000s – "time sovereignty". We all feel more in control of what we're prepared to do and when. And employers who can’t get used to that, or who expect a return to five days a week working 9 to 6, may be in for a shock.

  2. The four-day week is here to stay More employers, across both the public and private sectors, are starting to pilot a four-day week. The idea originated in 2017 in New Zealand and has been tried here and there around the world since. Covid, and the discussions about work-life balance and flexible working, have given it an extra boost. Cutting the time people work without cutting pay sounds like a great idea for many employees, but is a counter-intuitive way to improve a business. And yet, the research to date supports the idea that it works. With much larger pilots underway now, it will be interesting to see how the results turn out. Sceptics argue that there is at least a degree of bias at play in such research, as those who have already committed time and energy to switching are not likely to report it a failure. So will the patterns of a century ago, when the five-day week first emerged, be repeated ? Once the genie was out of the lamp, with notable businessmen like Henry Ford embracing it, it was unlikely to get back in. It seems a fair bet that, while Ford thought “history was bunk”, it’s about to be repeatable bunk.

  3. The impact of the great resignation and the war for talent The rise of the four-day week is a symptom of a changing power dynamic between employers and employees. Would so many employers be embracing the four-day week if they weren't having to work hard to be seen as “the employer of choice”? While an evangelical few are doing it because it is good for business or society, many are doing it to make themselves more attractive as recruiters. Without the current skills shortage, would this be happening at the speed it is? Most sectors in most advanced economies are experiencing gaps of some kind. And the numbers for those who have left the workforce each quarter continue to astound. With fewer candidates to choose from, there is a much greater need to stand out as an employer and the evidence suggests that lots of candidates are very attracted to the idea of fewer days work for the same pay.

  4. There is no one-size approach for all employees anymore Of course, not everyone is thrilled by the four-day week approach. And that doesn’t just mean sceptical or reluctant business owners. Some employees fear having to cram a workload they can barely get through across five days into four. It can look like more stress and longer hours for four days. The same arguments hold true for the return to the office. The now common hybrid arrangements work well for lots of staff, but not so well for some younger employees (and some teams who like to have other team members to bounce off). There is also a risk of proximity bias, with interesting jobs and then promotions going to those more likely or prepared to be in the office with the boss (and this very often favours men). It’ is going to get messy for those running businesses and for their HR teams, but to keep the best talent engaged, employers will have to be more flexible than ever, potentially offering a selection of working arrangements (in much the same way that more sophisticated employers allow staff to select their own benefits from a menu of options).

  5. Empathy and understanding are key The key to success in such a landscape, as Supper Club member John McMahon points out in his new book, is to manage with a much higher level of emotional intelligence. Now more than ever, becoming and staying an employer of choice demands that organisations offer what appeals to all sorts of different employee groups. While it is important to have rules and guidelines in place, it is no longer enough. The trend for greater flexibility and more choice on working arrangements is not one that is likely to go away now it’s been let out of the lamp. Wise founders will see this as both a challenge and an opportunity. It won’t be easy, but carefully managed and with the right systems are in place, offering a more bespoke employee experience can be a bonus to organisational success.